Latest Import From China: Filthy Air


March 27, 2006 — -- Glance around the room. That lamp, this keyboard, your socks. Chances are they were all made in China, while inside your computer is software likely written in India.

Americans are surrounded by the fruits of Asia's explosive rise, and years of steady importing and outsourcing have created winners and losers on both sides of the globalization boom. But the next phase could prove harmful for everyone -- because even the air we breathe could be made in China.

For years, air quality in the United States has been steadily improving, which is why atmospheric scientists were puzzled when they recently measured sulphur, mercury and PCBs -- an industrial byproduct pollutant -- blowing onto the Washington coast. Using a pollution-sniffing airplane and computer models, they traced the unwelcome import 3,000 miles across the Pacific.

One trip to Shanghai or Delhi and the source is obvious: A grimy haze, thick as London fog, covers the teeming urban centers. Seven of the world's 10 most-polluted cities are in China. "Clean air days" are counted in Beijing, and the official air-quality goal is "only" three days of sun-blotting pollution each week.

It is the price of a growth rate unprecedented in human history. A perfect storm of old and new pollution. Hundreds of millions still heat and light their homes with crude coal and kerosene while they steadily move from bicycles to Buicks.

Experts predict that by 2030, China will match American carbon-dioxide output, and that gas is the main culprit behind global warming. It provides a monumental challenge for Western leaders: How do we persuade them to do as we say, not as we do? After all, they are simply living their own version of the American dream.

"Look at someone in a slum in Delhi," said R.K. Pachuri, director of India's Energy and Resource Institute. "He doesn't have any furniture, but he has a small television and he watches all the channels that are popular in the U.S. It's going to fuel dreams. It's going to fuel desires. Developed countries harping on this issue is somewhat unfair, because it's time the developed countries begin changing the way they grow. You have the infrastructure, the technologies and incomes to produce more efficient automobiles. It is about setting an example."

Chinese party leaders appear to be setting an example with the promise to make the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing "the green Olympics," extending a gas pipeline to reduce coal pollution, cleaning foul waterways, and converting most city vehicles to natural gas.

Critics say this is all for show -- an effort to distract the world from the rest of their environmental devastation. But Tom Friedman, author of the mega best-seller "The World Is Flat," thinks they may have a more pragmatic motivation.

"India and China are going to go green because they can't breathe. And they are going to go green by building and designing low-cost, scalable solutions for their markets," he said.

It's that economy of scale that excites Kama Krishna. A former Wall Street analyst, Krishna moved back to his native India to help set up cheap solar-power systems in remote mud-hut villages. Eighty million Indian households still make it through the night burning cans of smoky kerosene, but small $50 solar panels and hyper-efficient LED light bulbs are moving entire villages from the dark ages onto the cutting edge of cheap, renewable energy.

"India has grown by moving from no phones to cell phones," he said. "I believe the same concept can be applied to electricity. Digital technology can help us jump past fossil fuel right to renewable energy."

Subsidizing solar panels for Indian villagers may not be at the top of Washington's agenda, but even those skeptical of environmental catastrophe recognize the political peril that comes with "Chindia's" growth.

The thirst for oil has driven China into a partnership with the genocidal regime in Sudan, and the anti-American president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

Even India, the world's largest democracy, has negotiated with Iran on a natural-gas pipeline.

"In a desperate search to keep feeding the economy and maintain social stability, they will make whatever deal with the devil they need," Friedman said.

"We need a high-level Manhattan Project with India and China and America putting all our brains, all our energy, and all our muscle behind designing green technologies on a stop-everything basis. Otherwise really bad things are going to come from this, not to mention giving more dollars to some of the worst regimes in the world."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events